Comcast launches cloud DVR in San Francisco, lays foundation for a set-top box-free future

Comcast customers in the San Francisco Bay Area can now stream their DVR recordings to their iOS or Android devices, no matter where they are. The Sling-like feature requires one of the company’s newer X1 set-top boxes — for now. Under the hood, it’s already powered by Comcast’s cloud DVR, which could eventually make set-top boxes obsolete altogether.

X1 users can also watch any of their live TV channels on a mobile device within their home. This kind of feature is similar to what Dish is offering with its Hopper DVR, or some of the things Slingbox owners have been able to do for some time as well. But the infrastructure used by [company]Comcast[/company] to power mobile playback is more unique, and foreshadows significant changes coming to the way the company operates it TV service.

That’s because on late Tuesday evening, Comcast also lit up its cloud DVR infrastructure for customers in the Bay Area. This means that every TV subscriber with a X1 set-top box also immediately has access to a virtual DVR in the cloud, which is used to stream any of those recordings to mobile devices.

Initially, the cloud DVR literally works as a kind of invisible clone of the DVR a customer has in her living room, meaning that each episode gets recorded twice — once on a local hard drive, and once on Comcast’s servers in the cloud. Customers will stream from the cloud DVR once they leave their house, but shouldn’t really notice the difference.

In the future, Comcast is going to switch to set-top boxes without hard drives, and only keep recordings in the cloud, ready to stream to any screen as needed. That transition to a cloud-only DVR could potentially also lead to Comcast doing away with the typical limitations of an in-home DVR, explained Comcast EVP of Consumer Services Marcien Jenckes during a meeting last week. “We could have unlimited tuners, unlimited storage,” Jenckes said. “We obviously have Moore’s law working for us,” added Product Management Director Preston Smalley.

What’s more, the cloud-based infrastructure that is now powering DVR streaming out of the home for Comcast could one day also power everything else, and completely make that set-top-box in your living room obsolete.

Pay TV operators have been talking about this kind of future for some time, but for Comcast, it’s actually within reach: The company recently launched a new service dubbed Xfinity on Campus in cooperation with select universities that gives students access to a full-blown TV service, including live TV and on-demand programming, on computers and iOS devices, without the need to ever touch a set-top box.

Currently, this kind of streaming-based TV service is only available to students living on campus at one of the eight participating universities — but there’s no reason why customers shouldn’t be able to sign up for TV service without renting a set-top box in the future.